Stuttering champions Italy face tough opener

Cape Town: Reigning champions Italy begin their World Cup football title defence Monday evening in a Group F clash with a confident Paraguay that is fraught with danger.

The game in Cape Town’s Green Point stadium is the toughest test for the Italians in a group that also includes minnows New Zealand and Slovakia.

Qualification seems certain, but the Italian media have written off the Azzurri’s chances of retaining their title, the negativity spurred on by a 1-2 loss to Mexico and a 1-1 draw with Switzerland in warm-up matches.

Boss Marcello Lippi has kept faith with many of the squad that won the world crown in 2006, despite the advancing years of key players.

Captain Fabio Cannavaro is 36, while full-back Gianluca Zambrotta, at 33, has lost a lot of his puff.

Lippi has dismissed both the low expectations and the age concerns.

“We’ve got old players but age ... means experience, charisma,” he said. “I think we have the right mix of young and old players.”

High-altitude training at the Azzurri’s base in Irene should help the older members of the squad when they take on Paraguay at sea level, but Italy’s biggest concern for the game is the absence of AC Milan playmaker Andrea Pirlo.

He will miss the first two matches with a calf injury, while Roma’s Daniele De Rossi also has a slight strain. The midfielder missed Italy’s 6-0 trouncing of local side Gauteng All Stars Friday.

Should De Rossi not recover, 33-year-old Gennaro Gattuso, who Saturday announced he would retire after the tournament, could step into midfield for a swansong.

Fiorentina striker Alberto Gilardino is perhaps the only certain starter up-front, although if Friday’s friendly is anything to go by he will be flanked by Vincenzo Iaquinta and Simone Pepe, both of Juventus, in a 4-3-3.

Paraguay, meanwhile, are flying high after beating both Brazil and Argentina in their qualifying campaign.

The South Americans, who are at their fourth consecutive World Cup finals, will be without star striker Salvador Cabanas, who was shot in the head at a bar in Mexico City in January and is still recovering.

But Manchester City forward Roque Santa Cruz, 28, still believes this is the best Paraguay side in recent years.

“I think the strength we have now in attack was not the same in recent World Cups, so the national team is stronger, in my opinion,” he said.

Benfica’s Oscar Cardozo - who top scored in Portugal this season - has an ankle injury and is likely to miss the match. Argentine-born Lucas Barrios, of Borussia Dortmund, looks set to join Santa Cruz in harassing Italy’s ageing defence.